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Fire guts church in Leimert Park; probe is launched

The FBI and ATF are among the agencies investigating as part of a special task force.

April 27, 2013|Joseph Serna
  • Los Angeles firefighter Paul Wingate shoots water at the smoldering remains of the Bethesda Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith on Crenshaw Boulevard.
Los Angeles firefighter Paul Wingate shoots water at the smoldering remains… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

A special task force of fire, police and federal agencies is investigating a church fire that erupted early Friday at a Leimert Park church.

The fire was reported before 2 a.m. at Bethesda Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith on Crenshaw Boulevard. Flames tore through the church windows, and plumes of black smoke climbed into the night sky. Witnesses said they could see the flames up to three miles away.

Firefighters were on the scene within four minutes of the first call, said Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Jaime Moore. The church was already fully engulfed, "from stem to stern," he said.

The church is about 50 feet by 150 feet, with scant material that would fuel a fire so quickly, he said. The fire moved fast, with flames singeing bushes across the street, officials said.

"We're treating it as a criminal fire at this time, until we can determine otherwise," Moore said.

Based on where most of the damage occurred, the fire appears to have started near the front of the church in the sanctuary, Moore said. The area was packed with electronic equipment, including TVs, speakers and an amplifier. It then quickly spread to the second floor and consumed the building within minutes.

It took 14 fire engines and more than 90 firefighters about 50 minutes to extinguish the blaze, Moore said. The department has brought in accelerant-detecting dogs to aid the task force's investigation.

The task force -- which includes Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigators, Los Angeles Police Department detectives, and agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- looks into all fires at places of worship, Moore said.

President Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force in 1996 in response to a number of church arson incidents in the South that year, and federal and local authorities nationwide have maintained the partnership ever since.

Wearing a bright yellow shirt with "Bethesda Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith" in bold, black letters, founding church member and minister Lillian Brown said the fire was just a "bump in the road."

"We worship God, not the building," Brown said. "We're going to go on. We're going to have a service this Sunday."

The congregation is 200-strong and had plans to celebrate the church's 25th year in June. For the time being, firefighters are helping the church set up shop at its community center next door.

"This church was no doubt a cornerstone for that community," Moore said. "We're doing everything we can to help them get back on their feet."

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joseph.serna@latimes.com

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